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Expectorants make you cough more, which actually is a good thing. Can expectorants treat your flu or cold and what are some natural alternatives?

Coughing serves a purpose — it helps free the respiratory system from things like irritants and secretions, both of which you'll be dealing with if you have a flu or a cold. If you have only a slight respiratory infection, it may be better not to mess with this process by taking cough medications.

It may be time to break out the cough medicine if you're coughing so badly can’t sleep, or your body isn't doing a good job getting rid of the secretions on its own, you’ll probably want to get some over-the-counter cough drugs. Two main drugs can help you fight coughs — suppressants and expectorants. Expectorants won't shorten the length of your cold or flu, but they may well help you feel better going through these illnesses. 

Expectorants: What are they?

Expectorants (which can also be called mucolytics) are drugs which thin and encourage the production of the mucus that is obstructing your respiratory tract. This makes it less difficult to cough up phlegm from your lungs, in turn making it easier to breathe. They're not an "anti-cough medication", then, but a real "cough medication" — expectorants induce cough. That's good news for those who'd rather have that mucus out than in. Keep in mind that as your mucus leaves your body, so do some of the bacteria that made you ill in the first place.

Guaifenesin — the main ingredient used in expectorants — can be found in the name brand drugs Robitussin Chest Congestion and Mucinex. Guaifenesin can be used for treating bronchitis, coughs and congestion as a result of the common cold, and some other respiratory problems. You shouldn’t use Guaifenesin to treat continuous coughing from chronic breathing issues (like emphysema and chronic bronchitis) or smoking.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • When taking Guaifenesin, make sure to drink lots of fluids. The fluids can help clear congestion and loosen your mucus.
  • This drug could have a bitter taste. Don’t break up tablets unless your pharmacist or the package insert tell you you can.
  • When consuming the liquid version of the drug, make sure to precisely measure a dose with a measuring spoon or device (which should come with the drug). You can't use any spoon that you find lying around because you might get too much or too little.
  • Read the package insert. That's what it's there for.

Expectorants can make it difficult to sleep in some cases — they encourage the production of more mucus, which makes for more effective coughs but not when you're lying down, if your cough is due to mucus which drains from your nose to the back of your throat. If you're down on sleep, expectorants may not be the right choice for you.

Guaifenesin: The side effects

Because what medication doesn't have them? Guaifenesin may cause:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache

Severe adverse reactions are extremely uncommon — but if you notice any of these symptoms, call your doctor or go to the emergency department right away:

  • You have a hard time breathing
  • You feel really dizzy
  • A skin rash (hives)
  • You experience swelling or itching, usually on your tongue, throat, and face (angioedema) 

What can you use instead of expectorants?

There are a lot of natural alternatives to expectorants. A few of these alternatives to cough medications could be to breathe in humidified air, have a few teaspoons of honey, and drink more water (or other clear liquids). Using some added pillows to elevate your head when sleeping can help you get rid of your mucus and help you sleep better if you have a lot of mucus in your chest. It also lessens your coughing.

Keep hydrated

The first thing you should worry about is staying hydrated. You should drink more fluids when you have a could or cough —  and though water should be number one on your list, but some nice warm herbal tea will also help. You shouldn’t have any alcohol or caffeine when you get a cough. 

A nice warm shower

A nice hot shower can really help loosen your chest congestion. The moist and warm air will help you with setting your mucus in the airway free. You could also consider getting a humidifier to get some moisture in the air.

Licorice to soothe your throat

Licorice is a natural expectorant, but it soothes sore throats, calms inflamed lungs, and suppresses coughs to boot. You can drink three cups of tea with one and a half teaspoons of licorice root a day. You can also buy lozenges that contain licorice. (This remedy isn't right for you if you have hypertension.)

Gargle with some salt water

Another way to clear mucus from your throat is to gargle with a combination of warm water and salt. Making this combo is simple: Put about half a teaspoon of salt in a cup filled with warm water. Mix it up to when the salt dissolves. When gargling, let it lay at the back of your throat for a bit. Do this a few times a day.

Try ivy leaf

Ivy leaf — a leaf from the plant ivy which is also known as Hedera Helix — can serve as a pretty good expectorant. The saponins in ivy leaves can liquefy your mucus in order for you to cough it up. You can find ivy leaf teas online or in a grocery store.

Peppermint

Peppermint can also come in handy when you are trying to treat a cold. It has this compound called menthol that can thin your mucus and loosen phlegm. Peppermint tea is easy to come by and pleasant to drink. Unlike pure menthol, which is poisonous, it's also totally safe. 

Honey: Your soothing friend

Honey is yummy, soothing, and natural, and it might loosen all that mucus. Research has proven that honey is pretty effective in treating coughs in children, as well as that it has some flu-fighting properties. Though you can just stick some honey on a spoon and eat it, you can combine several of these remedies by adding honey to some mint tea. 

Try some Marshmallow root

Research has been done on compounds that come from Marshmallow root and how they can be used as a cough expectorant and suppressant. It showed that Marshmallow root can:

  • Cut episodes of cough in half — nope, the control group wasn't "no treatment", but the very potent codeine.
  • Make your mucus more liquid, in turn meaning you'll have an easier time coughing it up. It was, in fact, as effective as guaifenesin in doing this. 

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com

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